Spending Penn State's millions: A fund to protect children from abuse should be run by experts

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If I were going to give away $60 million for the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, here's who I would not put in charge: The Penn State University board of trustees.

These leaders can't even agree on whether they should have to pay the amount in question as penance for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, as per a consent decree with the NCAA. Under the circumstances, should they really be in charge of administering those millions?

Is it not ironic that the school, having failed to protect children, now must pay a multi-million-dollar fine to itself and use it to protect children?

In truth, the notion of putting any university's board of trustees in charge of such a project is a bit problematic. However upstanding and accomplished these people may be, they are elected or appointed based on their usefulness to the school -- loyalty, financial support, professional abilities, political connections. Some may understand the issue of child abuse but few, if any, will be experts in the field.

What, then, would qualify them to oversee a huge pot of money to be used for mitigating this societal scourge? Shouldn't that task fall to an independent entity with expertise in grant-making, not to mention knowledge of the problem and its solutions?

Let's hope this is what Penn State officials meant last week when they said in a statement that they were "working to formulate a plan to create and administer the fund." Let's hope they've come to recognize the dangers of trying to handle things internally and to see the value of fresh perspectives.

The question of expertise in this case is not just rhetorical. Penn State has amply demonstrated its cluelessness on the subject, seeing as how it permitted a pedophile like Mr. Sandusky to prey on children for years using his exalted status inside Joe Paterno's untouchable football program as cover. The former assistant coach was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse and is now in prison awaiting sentencing by a judge.

Penn State's sentence, on the other hand, was issued by the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics, based on a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The sanctions include a fine of $60 million -- the equivalent of one year's football revenue -- to be paid at a rate of $12 million a year for five years and used for mitigation of child sexual abuse.

Or not.

Penn State president Rodney Erickson agreed to the NCAA sanctions last month, partly because the alternative "death penalty" to the football program would have been so much worse. He said then that no approval from the board of trustees was required.

But trustee Ryan McCombie maintains that Mr. Erickson did not have the authority to act on his own. Mr. McCombie notified the NCAA last week that he and some other trustees will be appealing the sanctions, which they believe go too far. And today, the trustees will hold a special meeting via conference call to consider ratifying the agreement.

If the vote supports Mr. Erickson, it then will fall to these same trustees to figure out how to move ahead with their child-protection obligation. What shape the effort will take is the $60 million question.

Who's going to figure out how to allocate the money and to what specific ends? Which agencies and treatment groups will benefit? How will progress be measured? The answers will determine whether the fund will have any lasting impact or wind up providing short-term, stop-gap measures that disappear once the money is gone.

Several weeks ago, I interviewed some child-welfare specialists about how the Penn State fund could best be spent. They listed a number of areas that could benefit from additional resources: prevention, reporting, intervention, child advocacy, law enforcement, system accountability, reducing the waiting lists for treatment, public education and awareness.

With so many possibilities there's a danger of spreading the money too thin without achieving long-term results, said Cathleen Palm, who runs the Protect Our Children Committee, a statewide coalition of child advocates that got the state government to create a child protection task force in December in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

District attorneys from across Pennsylvania have chimed in as well. Last week they said they wanted part of the money to fund child advocacy centers, which provide support services and reduce the number of times child abuse victims have to tell their story. The children talk to trained specialists who elicit information while avoiding leading questions that can harm prosecution efforts in court. Pennsylvania has 21 such centers -- two of them in Pittsburgh -- but none has a dedicated stream of money. All of them are funded county by county.

"Even in cases where we can't prosecute for a certain reason, the kid gets help at a child advocacy center," Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico told Post-Gazette reporter Laura Olson. "The kid will get the medical exam, will also get counseling and other services that the child might need. So we have that ability to help these kids in addition to the investigation and prosecution."

Clearly, there's no shortage of problems for the Penn State fund to address. The challenge will be to focus efforts in a meaningful way.

In their statement, Penn State officials said: "It is our hope the fund will produce countless opportunities to help children in need."

For all the controversy that the name "Penn State" evokes these days, that's one point on which everyone can agree.


Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1610).


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